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THE REAL OLIVER TWIST
Robert Blincoe - a life that illuminates an age
by John Waller, Icon Books UK
reviewed by Bill Gordon
Was the real life story of a parish orphan 'Robert Blincoe' the inspiration for Charles Dickens' 'Oliver Twist'? The author, John Waller, an historian at the University of Melbourne in Australia, speculates that Dickens would have read the memoir of Blincoe's life shortly before writing Oliver Twist, and he shows the similarities between the early lives of Blincoe and the fictional Twist.
The book is not really about Oliver Twist and is more a social history of Britain in the first part of the nineteenth century, focusing on Blincoe's life. He was (presumably) born into terrible poverty around 1792, and was dumped as an orphan into the St Pancras workhouse, London, aged four, where he was raised. Like Twist, Blincoe is thought to have been given his fictional name by a workhouse overseer.
When he was deemed old enough he was sent out to work as a chimney sweep, but that did not work out and within months he was returned to the workhouse. He was then sold into the 'white slavery' of the early cotton industry.
Pauper children were shipped up by the wagon-load by the workhouse authorities in London and other areas to the cotton mills of the Midlands and North. Providing the human fodder for the industrial "miracle" that was the rise of British capitalism, the St Pancras children were first sent as indentured apprentices to Lowdham Mill in Nottinghamshire, where they were subjected to inhumane conditions and treatment.
In November 1803 Lowdham Mill closed and the apprentice indentures of the St Pancras children were sold on to the owners of Litton Mill in the Derbyshire Peak District. There they were put on virtually starvation rations and worked to the bone for sixteen to eighteen hours a day. Examples of the brutal and sadistic maltreatment and torture (that went by the name "discipline") meted out to the children will make you wince. Industrial injuries were commonplace.
Among the thousands who suffered horribly, Blincoe stands out as he did kick back against his conditions. Waller writes at the end of the introduction that "Blincoe's life provides an outstanding example of courage, tenacity and a refusal to be downtrodden".
Finishing his apprenticeship, aged twenty-one, he went to Manchester (nicknamed "Cottonopolis") where he continued to work in the cotton industry, and endured further misery.
Blincoe campaigned against the worst evils of the factory and the workhouse systems, particularly through the friendship he struck up with John Doherty, a leading trade union pioneer of the age, and a prominent advocate of factory reform and the Short Time Movement (the campaign for the shorter working week). Blincoe's case was taken up by the working-class radical protest movement and became something in the way of a cause clbre.
A narrative of his life by John Brown was published in 1828 in weekly instalments in a two penny working-class publication The Lion and in 1832 it was reprinted as a pamphlet.
As an authentic voice of the poor, it stood out among the thousands of stories of the rich and famous. It highlighted the inequities and brutalities of the factory system and the poor law system in gruesome detail, from the viewpoint of one who actually suffered.
As arguably the first English working-class biography, it truly is "a life that illuminates an age". It shows the obscene poverty and suffering that went along with Britain's rapid industrial growth.
In The Socialist 13 September 2007:
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